BioShock Reader Review
It's difficult not to let the hype machine take over, making you cast your mind back to all the first images, impressions and previews, and then comparing everything you've seen and heard to what's onscreen. So I'm pretty thankful that I hadn't bothered with any of it, other than the odd comments of what you could do. The ideas flying around on how to deal with combat situations sounded incredible, beyond anything that has been made before. The combination of plasmids (BioShock's version of the psionic disciplines of System Shock 2) and gun-play was something that had to be experienced.
But before any of that, the first thing you'll encounter is the fantastic and ridiculously high-grade production value of the game. The developers did not scrimp on any aspect of art; the graphics, voice-acting, story and atmosphere, all each and equally superb and beyond anything that I've seen before. You know the time when you think you've seen the next big thing, well, this is it but more so. Were any one of these values not as well-polished as they currently stand, then there's a distinct feeling that things would have fallen down, or at the very least seem not quite right. The initial intro may not set-up much - you in an aeroplane in the late 1950s that soon crashes into the sea - but as soon as your head pops up for air you're in for a visual treat. Swim and step into the nearby lighthouse and that's the atmosphere set for the course of the adventure in Rapture, the underwater city of BioShock.
Things don't let up and can only be made better if you dim the lights and up the volume. The music from the tannoy system and record players, extravagant posters of events and advertisements, and the rather lovely wooden furnishings all keep the era real (if that's what the era was kind of like - nevertheless, it a decent setting for the game). The use of deep colours and spot-lighting make the environmental design all the more effective and, at times, that bit more frightening. There's a real sense of morbid fear in the air as you slowly step between rooms, round corners and peer into darken corners. The classic use of large shadows cast upon walls and voices floating from rooms and down corridors; it keeps you on your toes, twisting your view in the direction of the sounds only to find nothing there.
A sense of unease is palpable throughout the majority of the adventure and certainly has been used well to draw you into the story (what is Rapture and how do all these people and their diaries tie together?) but it does wear away towards the end. The main cause of this is that BioShock eventually plays like an FPS. Unlike System Shock 2 (SS2), gun-play is quite prominant as you are given your weapons (with no degradation effect) during the game and numerous vending machines selling ammo of all type (if you can't find any on the floor or from bodies). No more do you think 'should I risk the melee and save the gun, or just gun them down?' of SS2 of yore; you'll just take them down guns blazing and still have enough ammo to throw around - a slight lack of fear, if you will. It's certainly a lot faster than SS2, requiring on-your-toes thinking and weapon/plasmid switching; these latter aspects are definitely a good thing.
There's also an abundance of money (with your wallet showing four digits although $500 is the maximum it can hold, oddly) with which you buy ammo, health and Eve hypos (the latter is the energy for plasmid use), and other items. Bodies, crates and bins can be looted (why you'd be carrying a cream bun in your pockets is anyone's guess); safes, turrets and cameras can be hacked (with ease, after you realise that even though you lose health for failing an attempt, you can never die from repeated fails); and you can more or less wrench everything to death if you so wish. Death isn't forever and BioShock keeps the regeneration mechanic of SS2 (and nicely explains why/how it happens within the game, although you might need to play it a second time round, or at least think things through). The thing is that there's no penalty for dying, and you'll probably end up with (a lot) more Eve than when you died. This is one thing that really detracts from the game
As for the plasmids, there certainly don't seem to be as many as SS2 had of psionic disciplines. This might not be a bad thing as you're able to specialise and upgrade the plasmids that you like the most. ADAM is the monetary value in purchasing plasmids and is obtained from the much talked-about Little Sisters and the 'moral dilemma' that surrounds them. The choice is you either kill the child and obtain the maximum ADAM, or unpossess and save them thereby getting less ADAM but with the hope of getting a reward for being so nice. It's not really much of a dilemma and less about morals the better; if this is the best the industry has to offer on such views then I'd rather it not be termed in this way, just say 'choice'.
And for all the talk about combining plasmid effects, it does turn out to be more talk and less outcome. Sure, you're able to set the Splicers (the rabid foes within Rapture) on fire, watch them search for a pool of water and then electrocute them, but that's about it. I mean, why didn't the developers think about freezing the Splicers and then melting them into a mucky pool? Freezing and shattering them with a bullet is one thing, but a little more thought could have made the use of plasmids a game in itself. All in all, you're more likely the use the plasmids individually (because they are quite individual in themselves) and follow up with with a hail of bullets than to bother with multiple plasmid use. A miss and a real shame.
But such issues don't stay on the mind long enough to have a negative effect. The story is brilliantly told; the return of audio recordings to replay the recent history of Rapture; the interweaving connections of the numerous key people; the way the game gently nudges you onto the next path without you knowing it (and ironically, too, when the time comes within the game); the friendly feeling of being looked after and guided through this horrific nightmare by other non-Splicer survivors. And it's a game that you either play once and get everything that is going on, or play a second time and see things in new light, making sense of everything that you've read, heard or done. This is storytelling at its peak, and no other game comes close. For all the years people were preaching that gaming was like an interactive film; well, this is it and it done properly.
There's a problem, though. BioShock is a lovable game, it really is, but there are some things that you just sit there and think, 'why...?' I want to say it's the best game you'll ever play, better than the Shenmue series and that's something of an accolade. But there's a nagging feeling of something unexpected, and not necessarily in a positive sense. Yet, not quite negative (but really is), either. It's System Shock 2, removed; the same but with a slight oddity.
Whether a single play-through is enough can only be determined by how far you get when you play it again. It might be a little harsh to say that BioShock is to System Shock 2 as what Deus Ex 2 was to Deus Ex (although I had never fully played Deus Ex, but I hear it a very good game), a cut-down and simplified version of a classic gem in gaming history. I know I'm a little bit off the scale here, and know that BioShock is far better than Deus Ex 2 (because I actually finished the former, unlike the latter), but the similarities (in style, at least) surely cannot be denied.
Don't let anything put you off completing BioShock as something like this doesn't come around often enough. It will be a classic but just not quite in the way we know it now. Coupled with audio and visual aesthetics that will have you sink into the dark atmosphere of the underwater city collapsing on itself (in more ways than the obvious), BioShock has most definitely reinvigorated storytelling in gaming and gaming itself.